Some of us saw it, at least we're pretty sure it was real: The man in the black cape and beret who pushed his way up through the earth and crawled up to the surface during Bon Iver's sunrise show and seven-hour bliss-in at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Sunday morning. It was maybe a quarter to six. The sky was pale pink/orange/blue. He brushed the dirt off his cape and started dancing.
A whole section of the crowd — laid-out midnight picnickers experiencing dawn on a dewy lawn — were, at first, like, 'Oh great, some undead guy's going to block our view.”
But then he fanned his cape and started prancing toward the stage in rhythm with the music, deftly dodging the cross-legged worshipers and spooning couples as though floating a foot above the fray. He made his way to the front of the stage, and the onlookers acknowledged his arrival with light applause. Onstage, Vernon and his four piece band offered choirboy falsetto harmonies.
You'll excuse us if we devolve into slobbering poetics, but, really, it's hard not to when faced with an experience like this Bon Iver event at Hollywood Forever. The moments of grace and beauty throughout the late-night/early morning series of events feel strung together like diamonds in a necklace, each brilliant on its own but magnified by their proximity to the accumulated sparkle.
Those of you reading outside of Los Angeles might need a primer on the cemetery. It's situated in the middle of Hollywood, shares a southern border with the Paramount Studios lot, is this incredibly peaceful and quiet place a five minute drive from downtown Hollywood. Among the American royalty enshrined on the grounds are Charlie Chaplin, Mel Blanc, Cecil B. DeMille, John Huston, Art Pepper, Yma Sumac, Johnny Ramone and Eva Tanguay. Amidst the tombstones are gorgeous mausoleums, quiet ponds, elegant statues and a building with a vast white wall the exact size of a movie screen. For much of the year the ownership opens its gates for film screenings.
So starting at midnight the cemetery and Bon Iver's founder, singer and songwriter, Justin Vernon, programmed an all-night event that culminated in a two-hour performance by Bon Iver. The evening went as follows:
12 a.m.: Doors
12:30 a.m.: Bon Iver DJ Set I (see full set list below)
2 a.m.: The Feature Film: Bottle Rocket
3:30 a.m. Bon Iver DJ Set II (see full set list below)
4 a.m.: Documentary Film: Planet Earth (Jungles)
5:15 a.m.: Blessing of Audience and Stage by Buddhist Monks
5:45 a.m.: Bon Iver Performs
The entire night moved seamlessly. The cemetery apparently employs the best outdoor audiologists in the city, because from the very first notes of the very first song we heard upon arriving — “Muskrat Love” by Captain & Tennille, at about 1:15 a.m. — sound cascaded across the crowd in perfect volume and clarity. Speakers were strategically placed surrounding the mass, enveloping us. With nothing to block the audio — not even the standing bodies who would normally absorb a lot of the midrange at an indoor concert — the music floated through the mist and landed softly.
By 3 a.m. the thousands were situated on the ground; some had brought air mattresses, others big picnics and bottles of wine, and as Bottle Rocket showed on the screen, people weaved their way through the patterned grounds. It felt like Georges Seurat's “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” (A Sunday Morning in the Cemetery of Hollywood Forever?).
Many drifted in and out of sleep while the film played, being awakened by laughter and classic lines. In the second of Vernon's DJ sets, he dropped Lucinda Williams' “Minneapolis,” and if by mysterious design, the southern sky got a weird color of orange. This was around the time that the trippy nature documentary Planet Earth (Jungle), started, which blew a lot of peoples' minds, judging by the collected gasps.
Bon Iver walked out into the darkness after a collection of Buddhist monks chanted a blessing, and the music began. “Sold my cold knot/A heavy stone,”* sang Vernon,” and the thousands whispered silently along with words they'd long ago memorized. The sky seemed way too close. The palm trees looked Vaselined. Bon Iver appeared to be a dream. The orange of the sky shifted, and by a matter of degrees the color turned peachy, faded into powder blue, the fog of the world and the fog of the sleep intermingling. It was all so surreal.
We don't know what songs they played in what order. That will come later, when someone gets around to compiling the set list. And it's hard really to write about the music when it's encased amidst such a bejeweled seven hours. It almost feels wrong to try and describe it. If you have seen the band before, they played the same set, in probably a very similar order to what they usually do. How can they not, though? They've only got an album and an EP to their name. They played them all, and came out with tour mates Megafaun for a mystical six person vocal and string-band throwdown that moved at least one attendee to actual goddamn tears. But the difference between this Bon Iver set and the others, of course, is that the band presented this music as though on crushed velvet.
Vernon was awestruck. He kept thanking us as the light revealed more of them, this mass of people gathered on patterned blankets and looking like its own Appalachian quilt. You could sense the feeling of the band. Facing darkness at the beginning of the show, the misty light slowly revealed the crowd — and, crucially, the tombstones surrounding them. Who needs clumsy metaphors when the reality of the event is laid bare before you? At one point Vernon deemed it the most magical show they've ever done.
The band closed, as it often does, with “Wolves,” a mournful ode that Vernon requested the audience help him sing. The song, which is filled with mystery, culminates in Vernon repeating “What might have been lost …” over and over. He sings with both resignation and hope. The people lying on the ground, standing at the back, snuggling, meditating, crying, joined in, this music drifting among the living and the dead, bridging past and present. It was a strange night. It feels like it didn't really happen.
Can we do this again next Sunday?
Bon Iver DJ Set I
The Roches – “Quitting Time”
The Rosebuds – “Blue Bird”
New Buffalo – “Emotional Champ”
Rolling Stones – “No Use in Crying”
Don Williams – “Say It Again”
D'Angelo – “Feel Like Making Love”
Wax Stag – “Short Road”
Slim Harpo – “I'm a King Bee”
Mississippi Fred McDowell – “Shake 'Em Down”
Bonnie Raitt – “Nick of Time”
AA Bondy – “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing”
James Booker – “On the Sunny Side of the Street”
Tammy Wynette – “Apartment #9”
Aimee Mann – “How Am I Different”
The Bad Plus – “Flim”
Amateur Love – “Jailbreak”
Captain & Tennille – “Muskrat Love”
Bill Callahan – “Jim Cain”
Junietta Venegas – “Algo Esta Cambiando”
Mahalia Jackson – “Didn't It Rain?”
Dirty Projectors – “No Intention”
Nina Simone – “Seems Like I'm Never Tired Loving You”
Dr. John – “Me – You = Loneliness”
Yo La Tengo – “Black Flowers”
Bon Iver DJ Set II
Arthur Russell – “A Little Lost”
Sam Cooke – “Steal Away”
Ibrahim Ferrer – “Boliviana”
Staple Singers – “Uncloudy Day”
Innocence Mission – “I Haven't Seen This Day Before”
Vienna Boys Choir – “In Dulci Jubilo”
Lucinda Williams – “Minneapolis”
Paul Westerberg – “We May Well Be the Ones”
Sade – “By Your Side”
Judee Sill – “The Kiss”
Full set list (via Kevin Bronson/Spin)
Worried Mind [with Megafaun]
The Wolves (Act I and II)
*Editor's note: the original version of this post got some lyrics wrong. We corrected it above.